James Lee Burke: Burning Angel


John Updike—that late, great genius of the short story–once wrote that he reads other writers only for one reason: to plunder.  When I taught Creative Writing, this is one of the quotes I’d trot out for the kids.  And this little nugget would upset my students very much because they had just learned that plagiarism was bad—really bad.  “Isn’t that cheating?” someone always asked.

Plagiarism is terrible.  But this is not what Updike meant by his colorful term “plunder”:  he wanted to see how sentences were constructed, plots arranged, characters developed.  And then he took something away from it—and this take-away is what he lived for.  It was the treasure that he pirated, pillaged, plundered.  Every writer is at heart a pirate.


I am reading James Lee Burke’s amazing novel Burning Angel—the story of a Louisiana detective caught up in a paramilitary intrigue and I’m doing so because I want to learn…ummm, I mean….plunder.  It’s got colorful characters in a cool setting.  And a first person narration in a distinctive regional voice.  So, when I picked up the book, I was a pirate who had my sights set on a certain type of booty.  I thought that’s what I’m going to plunder.  How does that man get a sense of time and place?  How does he keep his voice interesting?


But the glimmering treasure I was after was not what I took away.  What did I plunder….umm learn?  Well, every male character in this yarn is sexy.  The main character, the villain—both all around hotties.  Hell, even when the villain meets up with the protagonist while jogging, the main character notes his sexiness in a decidedly appreciative non-gay way—checking out his rippling muscles and even the firm buttocks which, he observes, a woman might squeeze in the throes of sexual congress.

The men  in James Lee Burke’s novel ooze testosterone.  They’re not GQ pretty-boys.  They’re real men who train at boxing and have chest hair and are damaged by war and sweat buckets of musky man-scent, so powerful it could be harvested to make a thermonuclear cologne.  They have real scars and tattoos and women can’t resist that.  So, that’s my take-away:  the treasure that I hauled back onto my galleon.  My character is going to be sexy.  And he’s going to have more sex.  It makes for good action.  It gets him into places and situations that move the narrative.  A healthy sex life, I’ve discovered, translates into a page-turner.




Memorial Day: Memorializing a Day

This piece–a piece that commemorates the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon–is one that first appeared in Huffington Post.  Then it was re-run in DVAN–the Diasporic Vietnamese Arts Network.  I didn’t think it had a place in my detective blog.  But then I realized–duh!–this yarn is about a Vietnamese American detective…and so it has everything to do with him.  This is part of his story, too.  And it is a fitting story to think about during Memorial Day–a moment when we celebrate our armed forces.  

April 30, 1975

I often forget this day: the day my family became stateless people and began the process of drifting that would eventually have us wash up on the shores of these United States.  Today marks the anniversary of the evacuation of Vietnamese from what was once their home country:  a moment that dispersed us to far flung places—Paris and Berlin, Louisiana and Minnesota, Hong Kong and Manila.  We ended up in refugee camps and suburbs and bayous—so many different places, it is hard to imagine the sheer variety of circumstances such a major upheaval could precipitate:  like the phenotypes of plant life in the Amazon rain forest, each Vietnamese experience, after the Fall of Saigon, is stunning in its adaptations to micro-climates and sea changes.


I’ve never really thought to commemorate this moment.  Indeed, my family never observes it, even though it is no doubt, a major milestone.  You see:  the first thing I learned about survival as a displaced person—as a cultural alien–was that people died if they looked back.  They turned into a pillar of salt.  It happened to my family chauffeur:  he was so sad about a lost love left behind, he drove his car into a tree.  It happened to a whole generation of old folks who still hold national Congresses to pick at a scab that will no longer give up blood.

But Facebook has allowed me to become connected with other people’s obsessions and, now, I see that a good portion of my Vietnamese American friends (those born in my generation, those who came over as babies) are observing this moment by replacing black-and-white images on their profile pictures:  at least for the flicker of a digital moment, they are embracing the trauma.  I wonder if this is precisely because they can now afford to look back?

I had two uncles:  both dashing, both military men.  One decided to go dancing; the other, to play tennis.  This was in the moments leading up to the Fall of Saigon.  And so they missed the boat, quite literally.  When they got home, everybody had left.  The house was empty. They ended up doing roughly two decades of hard labor in a reeducation camp.


When they were finally freed, they immigrated to the United States.  One uncle got married to a young woman half his age from a region famous for beautiful, nubile women.  The other uncle never quite settled in; he always had a dreamy quality in his eyes, like someone always looking back:  a rheumatic look.  One uncle got fat.  The other, thin.  One uncle popped out children.  The other remained a bachelor.  He chain-smoked cigarettes and then died not long after he arrived in the United States.

Those uncles were always cautionary tales of my childhood:  people who loomed large and yet, paradoxically, were a physical non-presence in my life.  I didn’t meet them until my junior year of college.  Still, they were symbols of a conscious choice that had to be made:  to live in the past or to accept the present.  For me, it was a stark choice—like in that story “The lady or the tiger.”  You open one of two doors in life.  You walk into a room.  You have very little control over what you might find:  a beautiful woman or a terrible tiger.  You just wish that you will not enter a room in which you are consumed.

Writing Exercise: Cabinet of Curiosity

Every little boy—or girl—has a special trophy case: marbles, sea shells, buttons, rocks.  It’s an obsessive habit that reminds us of time and place, of history and chance.  That sea shell with the speckled markings that recall the waitress who flirted you up for an hour at the shore—it is something that will always remind you of the mole where you kissed her softly:  it is the souvenir of an older woman, a young boy and a lonesome pier.


Some people never let go of their collections.  They become hoarders—obsessive and rapacious.  They become collectors—connoisseurs of the fine and beautiful and expensive.  They become trophy hunters—proud and vain:  creatures derided by vanity.

I just read a New York Times article about cabinets of curiosity—they are going through a revival and a museum show–and it inspired me to retool an old assignment I used to give my Creative Writing kids:  my trophy assignment.  Of course, cabinets of curiosity are trophies and, also, not.  They are displays of possessions you are proud of—just like trophies—but the significance of these objects—these things–remains enigmatic; they are mysteries that need to be curated, explained and unraveled.


Every trophy says the same thing:  Behold This Great and Mighty Monument to My Amazingness.  It is a very public message—devoid of nuance.  My mom displays all my Piano Trophies on the little upright piano, still, beside my sister’s towering Beauty Pageant trophies; it is embarrassing because this grand display shouts her accomplishments with a megaphone to any and all who sit in her parlor.

Cabinets of Curiosity, though, are filled with beautiful, quiet secrets.  A piece of igneous rock; the dentifrice of a long-gone shark; a beautifully pleated Chinese fan—the multitudes inside a Cabinet of Curiosity speak of other voices, other rooms.  Cabinets of Curiosity—wunderkammer—were once the province of the uber-rich, those who could afford to finance explorers who brought back beautiful specimens as proof that there existed an eccentric world and that, yes, they had been to its edge.

By the Victorian era, Cabinets of Curiosity were delights, luxuries, that middle class people could afford—signs of worldliness and sophistication, signs of a flourishing colonial landscape.  If you didn’t have one, you didn’t have any class.  Perhaps that is why the opening of Bruce Chatwin’s amazing travel narrative In Patagonia begins with the young author contemplating a “piece of Brontosaurus” kept in his grandmother’s Cabinet of Curiosity.  This little artifact impels him on a journey and us, along with him:  Chatwin’s description reveals the intensity of a young boy feverishly wondering about that leathery piece of skin.


This exercise asks you simply to construct a Cabinet of Curiosity for any one of your characters.  In so doing, your character will have a history and a world; you will find that, if your character is alone, he will suddenly have friends, rivals and enemies; you may be surprised to find that your character will even develop a family tree.  You can write a saga if you do this exercise correctly.  Chatwin’s skin, for instance, is a wedding gift sent back by his grandmother’s brother–Charles Milward–during a period in the 19th Century when that ancestor immigrates to South America; it is supposedly part of a larger prehistoric creature, a Mylodon, dug up in a cave by Chatwin’s great-uncle, that the family had in their possession; the wedding gift, it was lost in a move; all that remains is a dessicated piece of skin with red hairs dangling from it.  Chatwin’s return to Patagonia also not only allows him to recapture the landscape of this long lost great-uncle but, also, puts him face to face with history:  many Welshmen settled Patagonia, where they even to this day, live in splendid isolation…tending sheep.


All this in a piece of skin!  Remember that every object has a history—a set of relations; complications; loves and passions, regretted and cherished.  What things would your character put on display but, also, hide?  What talismans do they carry in the museum of the self?  These are important questions.  If you can’t answer them for your character now, this exercise will help you do that.  If you’re having trouble getting into it, ask yourself this:  what things do YOU display; what, in the act of producing spectacle conceals your own obscure, secret joy?



Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that if you get stuck while writing your novel, you should put your work aside and compose a poem.  For those of you who don’t know:  Joyce Carol Oates is one of the great American writers, often shortlisted for the Nobel.  Besides the fact that she writes beautifully, she is also so prolific that she has published over 50 books and many, many collections of short stories.  Leave it to such a prodigious talent to suggest something like this:  that when faced with the dreaded writer’s block, you should simply write more.


Even though I have never once followed this advice in the twenty years since I have read it, it has still stuck with me.  And now I’m beginning to see its wisdom.  Most probably Joyce Carol Oates was envisioning writing some kind of conventional poem:  a confessional poem, for instance.  Not one of those postmodern fall-apart-in-your-hands poems like the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poems—the kind that are supposed to make almost no sense.

Why poetry instead of prose?  Poems are perfect little objects that will say things explicitly.  And they will say things in a perfect way, so that you will remember the directive encoded into the novelty of the language.  And if you forget, you can look back on the poem as a source for the narrative’s design.  Like tea leaves emptied onto a saucer of fine, bone china.

So today during my post-writing jog, I flashed upon Joyce Carol Oates’s idea.  It was then that I decided to write a poem.  It would be a soliloquy of the villainous serial killer, in which he spells out his motives and his intentions.  It would be Shakespearean in it’s way—dramatic and bombastic.  And then I suddenly realized that, though soliloquys no longer have a place in realistic writing, they are very much a part of the detective genre.  It’s pretty much the villain’s speech.  Thanks Joyce Carol Oates!



Friend Back from the Dead



A while back I wrote a blog, entitled A Friend Coming Back From the Dead.  Such an occurrence actually happened to me:  my friend Craig from undergrad was a motorcycle enthusiast who wound up in a coma; the last time I saw him—twenty years ago—I thought he was a goner.  Then, lo and behold, I saw him again.  Talk about a double take!

backWell, you can imagine how this sent me into a tizzy—turbulent emotions overwhelmed me; memories of a time long forgotten flooded my consciousness:  nostalgia, horror, pain—these emotions mixed in whirls and swirls.  This can either be good or bad, depending upon the situation.  For me, it was good:  cathartic and bracing and optimistic.  I was ecstatic Craig managed to come out on the other end alive.  But I can see how the return of a friend from the past can also really suck:  dark and ugly and terrifying.  In either case, this is exactly the kind of situation that will make a narrative take off.  It’s a major plot-maker.

A Friend Back From the Dead scenario also is a great characterization exercise.  This point was made by Margot Kinberg who, like me, writes detective fiction. Responding to my blog, Margot pointed out that a friend back from the dead “can give such interesting backstory on a protagonist and can add a layer of interest in and of themselves.”  So, if you’re stuck, if you don’t know what you really want out of a character, if you just feel like you don’t have a hold of motivations, than this is the exercise for you: write out a short scene in which a friend comes back from the dead.

If you do this, you might consider some of these factors:

1)    What does that friend want?

2)    What secret does he know?

3)    How can he wreck your character?

4)    How can he save your character?

5)    What kind of revenge can he exact?

6)    Who loses and who wins when this wildcard emerges?

7)    What kind of monkey wrench can he throw into the works?

8)    How will this destroy friendship?

9)    How will this strengthen love?

10) How will this incite justice?

There are many great novels—classics–that use this as the starting point for their narratives. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy is one such example; when Susan, the long-lost wife of a successful man, reappears, her arrival throws his entire world into upheaval—including his marriage plans.  But even more recently, Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino told the story of a young lady who awakes from a coma and goes on a revenge-seeking bloody rampage.


As an exercise, then, this will give you not only a character but, also, a plot.  If you’re weak on plots, this will furnish you with a plot that should write itself.  Additionally, it will throw the contours of your character’s world into wild relief.  You could do well, though, to write this as something beyond a simple exercise.   If you’re having trouble thinking about which friend to bring back to life, ask yourself this:  Who is the last person you want to see?  Who would give you the willies if they turned up at your door?  Who would tap you on the shoulder and make you leap out of your skin?

Writing Exercise: What pattern is your wallpaper?

51  Writing Exercise:  What pattern is your wallpaper?


“Imagine that the world your character occupies is wallpaper,” said my writing instructor.  “Now, imagine what would happen if you broke that pattern.”  This was the exercise given by one of those life-changing profs so long ago—a man who entered into my little world when I was doing the normal, routine coursework of an undergrad well on his way to becoming a medical student:  Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics.


I never thought that I would ever become a writer.  David changed all that.  And this exercise—the one I will share with you today—was one of those amazing tasks that rocked my world.   It will allow you to think of several interrelated strands in a character’s arc:  past, future, present.

The wallpaper is an apt metaphor of humdrum regularity.  Every character has a routine—an arrangement, a pattern.  To be a good writer, it is important to understand that pattern.  I, for instance, wake up every morning and do five minutes of calisthenics.  I brew an extremely potent pot of coffee.  Then, I write for 3 hours.  I jog.  And finally, I eat lunch.  I know:  I’m boring.  I am ashamed that I am so boring.  This is my sad, monotonous pattern.

You, too, have a routine.  In fact, if you were being watched by a private dick—the sort that might appear in the kind of Detective story I’m currently writing—than you would see how absolutely predictable you are.  This routine is the story in stasis; it is the pattern that needs to be established in small details.  It doesn’t have to established before the action; it can be established after it.  But wherever it shows up, it has to be there.  And now that we have established the primacy of the wallpaper,  you must understand one key fact:  the wallpaper, it’s most definitely not the story itself.


This is probably the biggest problem for writers who are stuck at page two—they are writing the wallpaper.  The wallpaper is the anti-story.  And this is where many writers who can’t find a plot leave their narratives:  in the world of endless repetition.

To create the story, you must ask yourself how the wallpaper must be violated.  How can you introduce interesting variation?  This is the element that makes the story compelling and motivates the plot.  It can be as simple as a phone call; I could be interrupted in my writing by an urgent ring, informing me that my cat has been run over and this will send me on a quest for revenge.  Someone could knock on the door; it is a man, a bully, who demands that I stop playing my loud music and this will devolve into a Tarantino-esque shooting spree.  A fire alarm could go off in my building; I meet a beautiful woman, half naked outside the complex, and offer her my jacket…


So, here is the exercise:  figure out what your character’s routine is—that little ant-life that he is drudging through.  It doesn’t have to be as boring as mine—a writer’s sad, solitary, keyboard existence; it can be the life of a gigolo.  But even a gigolo’s life has wallpaper.  Figure out the wallpaper and you are well on your way to violating it.  Violate it and you have a plot.

Having Goals: Getting a Plot



There always comes a moment when we set a goal—whatever it may be—humble or lofty or grand:  sure, let’s all lose ten pounds; pay off that credit card debt; buy a house.  Goals, we are told, are the sign of a highly ordered life—one that is consciously lead—which also begets best laid plans:  that 401K; the house in the Bahamas; a mistress in the city.


Isn’t it interesting how goals engender goals in a chain, a progression, that leads onward—sometimes upward?  If I buy that BMW, I will get a girlfriend; if I get a girlfriend, I will feel so much happier and my acne will clear up; if my acne clears up, I will smash my arch-nemesis at our high school reunion…but I’ll never be able to get that BMW if I don’t write this book!


Goals—written ones—are the moments in which we strategize, plan and hold ourselves accountable.  Goals—they’re the archetypal moment of plotting: that moment when we rub our hands together and laugh devilishly:


The rest of the time, we don’t live in the world of plots.  We just go about life, pretty much cluelessly, eating free samples at Costco and channelsurfing on Youtube.  The rest of the time, we are breaking every diet known to man and frittering away the few moments of our life by watching cats doing the darndest things on the interweb.


But every once in a while, we straighten up:  we actually set ourselves into a plot by creating lists of things that have got to get done:  call them bucket lists; New Year’s resolutions; empty promises:  the most effective lists are the ones we write down—the ones in which we script ourselves into a narrative arc.

Does your character have such a list?  Does your character have a goal?  I can tell you now:  after many years teaching kids who want to write artsy fiction, most probably your characters do not have focused goals.  That means your narrative is basically going to suck.

Your characters, they don’t know what they want . They don’t have aim.  They don’t have a measuring stick.  So they are rudderless.  They are walking around the Costco of life, sucking down free samples, bewildered by the selection of wide screen televisions and the many cut-rate diamond bracelets.  They will do things without thinking.  Ugh.


So, take a moment to give your character a set of goals.  They don’t have to fulfill them.  In fact, it is best to make those goals lofty…and have your characters fail miserably.  Why?  Because failure, humiliation, is compelling:  funny and interesting and heart-rending.  If you really want to make this complicated, try to give more than one character a goal—have two enemies write down the things they really want—and you’ll see how a truly complicated narrative will spin itself…like the webwork of a black widow in the dead of the velvet night.